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ROBERT TANNAHILL, the Paisley weaver, was born at Paisley on the 3rd of June, 1774. His opportunities of education were limited, but he devoured such books as were within his reach, and made the best of the opportunities he had. An ardent lover of music, he became a proficient player of the flute and fife, and was never more pleased than when, having mastered a meiody, he succeeded in wedding it to words of his own. After spending two years at Bolton, he returned to Paisley at the death of his father, and became acquainted with Robert Archibald Smith, the composer, whose admirable setting of many of his lyrics, “ Jessie, the Flower of Dumblane,” “The Braes o’ Balquhither,” “The Lass of Arranteenie,” and “ Loudoun's Bonnie Woods and Braes,” gave them wings which carried them throughout the length and breadth of Scotland, and will help to bear them down the avenues of time. The first edition of his songs and poems was published in 1807, and met with a very favourable reception. Two or three years later he made another collection of his songs and poems, which he offered to Messrs. Constable & Co. for publication. Unhappily this famous firm were too busy to undertake its issue at the time, and their refusals to publish it induced a condition of melancholy, which culminated in a tragic end.
All the copies of his works that he could lay his hands on, including the final revisions of his already published songs, and many others which had never been in print, together with all the copies he could gather from his friends, were consigned to the flames, and there were not wanting other signs of the mind diseased. James Hogg made a journey to Paisley on purpose to see him, and the two singers spent a night together, Tannahill walking halfway to Glasgow with the Ettrick shepherd on the following morning. A few weeks after this the strangeness of his manner while on a visit to Glasgow induced a friend to return with him to Paisley, when, after returning to his room, he slipped out of the house unobserved, and was found, after anxious search, lifeless in a pool of water in the neighbourhood. He died on May 17th, 1810.
Setting aside Burns, there is no song-writer more popular in Scotland than Tannahill. His memory is cherished with the deepest affection in his own West country. A gathering, at which the finest of his songs are sung, is annually held on the Braes of Gleniffer, and is attended by crowds from Glasgow, Paisley, and other towns in the neighbourhood. And he thoroughly merits the place he has won in his countrymen's hearts. A poet of the people, he has not received due recognition at the hands of literary critics. He has lines than which there are none sweeter in the Scottish tongue; a lyric could not be "more lightly, musically made than “Gloomy Winter's now awa'.” He had a curiously fine sense of words; his lyrics are as finished in
their diction as they are true and touching in their sentiment and spontaneous in their flow. In one respect he may, perhaps, be said to have excelled Burns; namely, in his delicate aptness of descriptive phrase when dealing with nature :
“Towering o'er the Newton woods,
Adorn the banks sae briery, O!
And ilka thing is cheerie, O!”
Truer, simpler, and more graceful words could not have been chosen. The gladness and freshness of a sunny day in the opening spring could not have been more happily rendered. Again, with what fine imaginative truth the eerie feeling of a superstitious Scottish rustic, alone in a moonless, starless night of storm, is rendered in a verse of “O, are ye sleepin', Maggie ?”-one of his most beautiful songs :
“ Fearfu' soughs the bour-tree bank,
The rifted wood roars loud and drearie;
And cry o' howlets makes me eerie.
An exquisite artist was lost by the death of the Paisley weaver, He had not a wide range, he had almost no sense of humour, no satiric or narrative
faculty. His gift was purely lyrical, and the gift was, in its way, perfect. His love-songs, so pure and tender, so graceful in form, so musical, so admirably adapted to be sung, with the fragrance of the woodland braes he loved so well still clinging to the lines, are almost as little likely as the songs of Burns to lose their hold on Scotchmen's hearts.
I maun lea' them a', lassie;
Wad gi'e Britons law, lassie ?
Wha wad shun her ca', lassie ?
When I am far awa', lassie.”
“Hark! the swelling bugle sings,
Yielding joy to thee, laddie,
Waefu' thoughts to me, laddie.
Far frae love and thee, laddie.
And nane to close thy e'e, laddie."